The politics of the grizzly Environmentalists may have a new tool in their quest to save the environment By Bob Barnett Thousand year old trees, 10-feet in diameter, have been the rallying point for environmentalists trying to stop logging in the Elaho Valley. The ancient Douglas firs have attracted attention around the world as a symbol of the conflict within British Columbia: if they stand the preservationists have prevailed; if they fall the forestry companies have got their way. While the trees are usually cited as the main reason to preserve the Elaho, there is another symbol of B.C. that may ultimately be a more powerful preservation tool: the grizzly bear. The grizzly is gaining importance in land use decision making in B.C. through the provincial government’s Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy. Any area that has been identified as grizzly habitat, including the Elaho Valley and the Melvin Creek drainage where the Cayoosh Resort is proposed, is going to come under the scrutiny of the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy. And any development or alteration of that habitat is going to have to prove it won’t be detrimental to grizzlies. The grizzly, as the largest carnivore in North America, is a barometer for the health of an ecosystem. "It’s the flagship species," according to Matt Austin, project manager of the British Columbia’s Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy. If a grizzly remains in its territory, the theory goes, it’s a good bet the diversity of plants and other animals in the territory remains healthy. But a grizzly needs a lot of territory. Over its lifetime, a grizzly will "require a home range of between 50 and 100 square kilometres, and in some cases up to thousands of square kilometres," according to the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy. The problem, according to the GBCS, is a loss of grizzly habitat through "our rapidly growing population's increasing demands upon the land and its resources, and human intolerance of grizzlies." B.C. has a critical role to play in protecting North America’s grizzly bears. Grizzlies, which once roamed as far south as Mexico, are now found mainly in B.C., the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Alaska and a few areas in the lower 48 states. In 1990, an assessment of grizzly bears in Canada suggested half of North America’s remaining grizzly bears are within Canada’s borders. British Columbia, with a population of 10,000-13,000 grizzlies, was believed to have half of the Canadian population, or one quarter of all the North American grizzlies. Recognizing B.C.’s role in protecting grizzlies, the provincial government initiated its Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy in 1995, launched at the same time the Vancouver Grizzlies basketball team came into existence and with financial support from the basketball club. The mandate of the Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is "To ensure the continued existence of grizzly bears and their habitats for future generations." One of the foundations of the strategy is to identify key grizzly bear habitat and to manage it in a way that ensures the long-term survival of grizzly bear populations. The strategy of protecting habitat to protect species goes back as far as Charles Darwin. A 1967 book by ecologist Robert MacArthur and biologist Edward Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography, expanded on the importance of habitat and the significance of the size of habitat. The basic principle presented by MacArthur and Wilson is that large islands can support more types of plants and animals than smaller, more isolated islands. The theory has since been applied to continents. An analysis in the 1980s of wildlife sightings in national parks in Western North America found animals in the smaller parks, particularly those in the Western United States, were disappearing. By comparison, in the larger, continuous mass of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho national parks in Canada, most species maintained healthy populations. Citing several types of animals that were no longer found in American national parks, and the fact that many national parks were under pressure from ranching and logging, Bill Newmark concluded in a 1987 article published in the journal Nature that virtually none of the national parks in the American West were large enough to provide long-term homes for the animals that lived there. In the United States, Newmark’s conclusions have been championed by, among others, scientist Michael Soulé and former Earth First! member David Foreman. Together they helped start the Wildlands Project, a non-profit organization based in Tucson, Arizona dedicated to developing a North American wilderness recovery strategy. Working with independent grassroots organizations, the Wildlands Project is intent on protecting larger wilderness areas, buffered from development and connected by migration corridors. "Our vision is simple," the Wildlands Project’s website states. "We live for the day when Grizzlies in Chihuahua have an unbroken connection to Grizzlies in Alaska; when Gray Wolf populations are restored from Durango to Labrador; when vast unbroken forests and flowing plains again thrive and support pre-Colombian populations of plants and animals; when humans dwell with respect, harmony, and affection for the land; when we come to live no longer as strangers and aliens on this continent." There is considerable debate in the scientific community — and most assuredly in places like Victoria and Ottawa where government environmental policies are discussed — about the reality and practicality of this vision. Things have changed a bit since pre-Columbian times. But there is agreement among conservationists, scientists and governments that protecting habitat is key to protecting wildlife. That’s one of the cornerstones of the federal government’s Species at Risk Act which is now working its way through parliament. If the act becomes law it will give the federal cabinet the power to prohibit the destruction of habitat essential for endangered species. It will also give cabinet the authority to make an emergency designation which could stop, for example, logging or resort development on any parcel of land in the country. But one of the determining factors in whether the act has teeth or not will be identifying land essential to endangered species, mustering the political will to protect it, and the subsequent issue of compensation. A discussion paper released last week by Environment Canada suggests forestry and mining companies should not receive direct compensation for losing Crown land if it is deemed essential to the preservation of a species. "There seems to be a social consensus that private property owners should be eligible for compensation due to extraordinary restrictions on the use of their land," according to the report. "There is less agreement over the issue of compensation for lease holders on Crown lands, and further discussion is warranted." Resource companies have countered that if that is the case they will be stuck with an unfair share of the cost of protecting endangered species. It may be some time before the Species at Risk Act becomes law, but the provincial Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is starting to have an impact on the land-use decision process in B.C. And it may hold particular significance in the Whistler area. Across B.C., 60 grizzly bear population units have been identified and their specific habitats mapped. Criteria have been established to determine whether those populations are "viable" or "threatened." "There are nine threatened areas, all of them in southern B.C.," Austin says. "Whistler is basically surrounded by threatened areas." The Squamish-Lillooet Grizzly Bear Population Unit, so named and identified by Ministry of Environment staff working on the GBCS, resides in the Elaho-Clendenning area between the Sea to Sky Highway and Jervis Inlet, which includes the area Interfor hopes to log. To the east of the highway is another threatened bear population unit, in Garibaldi Park. To the north is the threatened Stein-Nahatlatch Grizzly Bear Population Unit, and in the middle of that is the proposed Cayoosh Resort. The nine areas labeled "threatened" will be the subject of recovery plans developed by staff from the ministries of Environment, Forests and Energy & Mines. Recovery plans will include a prohibition on grizzly bear hunting as well as habitat protection. With these measures in place, some threatened grizzly populations should be able to recover on their own, while others may require relocating grizzlies from other areas to boost the population. The first two pilot recovery plans, announced last July, are the North Cascades area in Manning Park and the Kettle-Granby area near Grand Forks. Austin said the recovery plan for the North Cascades is nearly complete and will soon go to stakeholders for input — which may be the first real test of the GBCS. There are many stakeholders in land-use decisions in B.C. today; loggers, ranchers, farmers, First Nations, municipalities, resort developers and backcountry users all have a voice at the same table as those speaking for the grizzlies. "The Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy will not impose new land use processes or new demands on the land base over and above those already sanctioned by government," according to the GBCS website. "Instead, it will utilize the opportunities provided by existing land use initiatives, such as Land and Resource Management Plans (LRMPs), the Protected Areas Strategy (PAS) and the Commission on Resources and Environment (CORE). If there is a need for withdrawals from the land base to protect grizzly bears, those decisions will be made through these existing processes and will be subject to the local consensus or joint sign-off that these initiatives require. The only unilateral decision the Wildlife Branch might make for grizzly bear conservation would be to close areas to hunting, and even this measure would be subject to consultation." "We’re committed to using the land-use process," Austin said. "Through the GBCS we’re trying to provide information on grizzlies’ needs and take that to LRMPs. But ultimately cabinet weighs the information and makes the decision based on all the input." Once the first two recovery plans are finalized, work on recovery plans for the other seven threatened grizzly populations will begin. Austin said lessons learned in the first recovery plans may be used elsewhere, but each plan will be tailored to the specific grizzly population. "They might be nine chapters of a larger plan," he said. South of the border, U.S. officials have identified six ecosystems where they are attempting recovery plans for grizzly bears. Four of those six ecosystems share the border with British Columbia. "Some of their bears are our bears, too," says Austin, who is B.C.’s representative on an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee which is co-ordinating work in the different jurisdictions. Grizzlies don’t carry passports and some population units move freely across the U.S.-Canada border, where their habitat straddles the 49th parallel. But unlike the Wildlands Project’s goal of returning the grizzly population in the lower 48 states to pre-Colombian levels, B.C.’s Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is focussed on "maintaining in perpetuity the diversity and abundance of grizzly bears and the ecosystems on which they depend throughout British Columbia." The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a non-governmental effort to re-establish a continuous wildlife habitat between Yellowstone Park and the Yukon, is one of the grassroots organizations the Wildlands Project supports. The Y to Y effort emphasizes building "linkages" — overcoming highways, population centres and other barriers to wildlife movement. Austin said the GBCS has kept in touch with the Y to Y people and is tackling similar issues, including applying the "linkage zone prediction model" to Highway 3 in the Kootenays by creating spots where grizzlies can move back and forth across the highway. There is also an opportunity to use this model on the Sea to Sky Highway, linking the Garibaldi Park Grizzly Bear Population Unit with the Squamish-Lillooet Population Unit. But unlike the Wildlands Project, the GBCS does not see linking all grizzly bear population units as the answer. "Linkages are important, but they’re not always possible to maintain," Austin said, citing the North Cascades and the Stein-Nahatlatch as an example of two grizzly population units which may never be linked. "If we find no linkages are possible, it wouldn’t rule out a recovery plan." And the GBCS doesn’t rule out resort development or logging even in areas where there will be a recovery plan. "There’s lots of literature on logging and grizzlies," Austin said. "But it’s logging roads which provide access for people, who create disturbances and a displacement effect, that are the biggest concern." Austin also notes that there’s a wildlife management strategy in the Forest Practices Code that forestry companies are required to follow. And there is considerable debate over what impact the Cayoosh Resort proposal would have on grizzly bear habitat. The resort is within an "endangered" area but is a small part of the whole area used by the Stein-Nahatlatch population unit. The cumulative impacts of the resort — what may happen outside the Melvin Creek drainage — may be a bigger issue for grizzlies than the resort itself. Ultimately, protecting grizzlies is going to be a political decision, based on a number of considerations, just as are other land-use decisions in B.C.